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No eulogies needed yet for Florida State, Willie Taggart

Fennelly: The Seminoles rally after blowing the lead against Louisville. Expect to hold your breath every week.
Florida State coach Willie Taggart shouts instructions in the second half against Louisville in Tallahassee. Florida State defeated Louisville 35-24. [MARK WALLHEISER  |  AP]
Florida State coach Willie Taggart shouts instructions in the second half against Louisville in Tallahassee. Florida State defeated Louisville 35-24. [MARK WALLHEISER | AP]
Published Sep. 22

TALLAHASSEE — I wouldn’t turn in your shovels just yet, but Florida State lives, led by the Coach You Can’t Bury, not to mention the Graduate Who Kept on Throwing.

The Seminoles, heavy on the “semi,” survived Saturday against Louisville in a half-filled Doak Campbell Stadium; 46,530 is a small crowd for a funeral. I sent Taggart a note in the fourth quarter that I’d have my car out back when it was over, engine running, for his getaway.

But what was looking like graveside service, another big lead blown, became a rousing finish and a 35-24 win.

“It was just good that some of our guys overcame some of our demons from early in the year,” Taggart said.

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Same went for the head coach.

Granted, the demons are still a touchdown favorite, but some sunlight found its way to the bottom of a mine shaft that had FSU staring at a startingly bad 1-3 start, no way to save Taggart’s job, even with that monster buyout.

But old life-and-limb Willie sat bolt upright just when we thought he was done, and so did his kids.

And here we all thought the big play of the game was going to be that 74-yard touchdown pass Louisville hit a few plays into the final quarter.

Florida State wide receiver D.J. Matthews (7) goes high for a reception in the second half. [MARK WALLHEISER | AP]

Instead, it was the left arm of FSU graduate transfer quarterback Alex Hornibrook, and the hands and legs of receiver Tamorrion Terry, who was wide open and beat the Louisville defense (what, were the 2018 Bucs back there?) to give the Seminoles the lead for good.

Hornibrook, who won 26 games in his undergraduate days at Wisconsin, saved the day — and Taggart’s bacon while he was at it.

“The game wasn’t too big for him, the moment wasn’t too big for him,” Taggart said,

Forgotten, for one day, were those blown leads in the opener against Boise State and the loss last week at Virginia. Never mind that FSU celebrated a couple of weeks back when it had to hold on to beat Louisiana-Monroe, in overtime, on a missed extra point.

That is where FSU is at these days, hanging on. Anything that isn’t an L is a W worth savoring. The final scoresheets beat pink slips.

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But there was some daylight. The Seminoles cut down on their penalties and other mistakes in a turnover-free game. Running back Cam Akers grinded out 112 yards and three touchdowns.

The defense, the central culprit in 1-2 and those blown leads, rallied at just about the time we began to think coordinator Harlon Barnett was on his way out, this week, and defense analyst and former USF terror Jim Leavitt was beginning to practice his helmet butting.

But the FSU defense made a play as Louisville, up 24-21, drove deep into FSU territory and appeared ready to put this away. But Seminoles safety Cyrus Fagan made an interception.

Hornibrook took it from there.

Don’t look now, but there’s a quarterback battle in Tallahassee.

Saturday was Hornibrook’s FSU debut. He got a taste early in the game, with a 44-yard TD pass to Keyshawn Helton — the first throw of his FSU career. Hornibrook took a man-sized bite after starter James Blackman went down with a knee injury in the third quarter.

Trainers and doctors check on Florida State quarterback James Blackman (1), who left the game in the second half. [MARK WALLHEISER | AP]

Hornibrook finished 15-of-20 for 255 yards and two TDs. Just before his winning TD toss, he threaded a 24-yard pass to D.J. Matthews for 24 yards to rescue the Seminoles from second and 20. Two plays later, he found Terry for the winning points.

“We’ve got to build off it now,” Taggart said.

Much easier said than done. The Seminoles will be back here on the high wire next Saturday night against N.C. State. A week later, they will be the human sacrifice at top-ranked Clemson. The Red Cross and Amnesty International will both have scouts at that game.

The Atlantic Coast Conference is awful. Appalachian State beat fading Mack Brown and North Carolina on Saturday. Georgia Tech has already lost to The Citadel. Boston College has been embarrassed by Kansas. And we still don’t know who FSU can beat the rest of the way.

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No lead is ever safe. No win is ever certain. No coaching future, either.

But FSU outlasted its demons for once.

“I don’t know about demons being a good thing,” Taggart said. “No. 1, I believe in our kids, what they can do for us and how well they can play. I’m more excited that they’ve been able to block out the negative and stay focused on getting this football team right and get themselves right.”

Or at least right enough for one day.

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.

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